Gratitude is powerful. It has the power to annihilate fear and eradicate worry. And practicing gratitude has been shown to rewire the brain into a more positive, consistent mindset, leading to a healthier body and brain. But most important, gratitude has the power to change our lives for the better.
What Is Gratitude?
Being thankful is a term that is specific and vague at the same time. What does it really mean? Simply put, gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to us. It’s creating and living in a general state of thankfulness. Noticing and appreciating the things around us, both large and small, that we are thankful for having in our life.
Being grateful isn’t about big events or expensive items. It’s about the things we are surrounded by, the things money can’t buy that bring us joy. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate and be thankful for the bigger things in our life. We can. But by training our brain to find joy in the little things, we can consistently find gratitude in our daily lives.
Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked tools that we have access to every single day. Cultivating gratitude doesn’t cost any money, and it doesn’t take any time, but the benefits are enormous.
Your Brain On Gratitude
When we actively engage in a state of gratitude a lot happens in our brain. Let’s start with the hypothalamus. It’s the part of our brain that regulates a number of critical bodily functions. Our appetite, sleep cycles, temperature regulation, metabolism, physical growth — it’s all controlled by the hypothalamus. Studies out of the National Institute Of Health have shown that our hypothalamus is activated when we feel gratitude, giving us healthier bodily functions as a result.
Further, people who have attitudes of gratitude experience fewer aches and pains. They generally report feeling healthier. According to a study published in Personality & Individual Difference, grateful people are more likely to take care of their health, exercise more frequently and consistently, and attend regular check-ups with their doctors. All of which contribute to greater longevity.
Gratitude improves our sleep both by increasing the quality of our sleep and decreasing the time it takes to fall asleep. It also lengthens the duration of our sleep. These results have been found in numerous studies, and research done on gratitude and sleep consistently yields the same results.
But one of the most powerful studies on the benefits of gratitude came out of UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. According to their studies, expressing gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain. It keeps the grey matter functioning and people who regularly express gratitude have a higher volume of grey matter in their brain. This means there is a significant neurochemical difference in individuals who experience gratitude consistently.
Gratitude & Mental Health
Beyond improving our physical health, gratitude has been shown to eliminate a multitude of toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, frustration, and regret. Dr. Robert Evans, a leading gratitude researcher, has done studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
When we perform acts of kindness or experience various forms of gratefulness, our brain is flooded with dopamine and serotonin. This leads to an instant uplift in our mood, making us feel good every time we experience gratitude. The more we express gratitude for what we have, the more likely we will find more to express gratitude for. It’s a powerful positivity circle, where gratitude begets gratitude, giving us more to be grateful for and feeling great while doing it.
Because of this increase in dopamine and serotonin, expressing gratitude reduces stress. But it also plays a major role in overcoming trauma. In 2006, a study published in Behavior Research & Therapy found that Vietnam vets with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of PTSD. Since then, studies have shown that individuals who practice gratitude recover from traumatic events faster than those who don’t.
Gratitude also reduces social comparisons, which is really big in the world we currently live in. Facebook depression is a real thing, induced by looking at everyone’s highlight reel and comparing it to our own lives. When we recognize what we have to be grateful for, even during difficult times, it fosters resilience, which leads to building self-esteem. And when we’re able to appreciate ourselves, we are far more likely to appreciate other people’s accomplishments, eliminating those toxic negative emotions.
Cultivate An Attitude Of Gratitude
Gratitude is one of the simplest things we can do each day to boost our brain, our body, our business, our team, our families — in short, our entire lives. Here are five things we can do today to get started.
- Write Gratitude Down
There are a few ways we can write gratitude down. For a solitary exercise in gratitude, write in a journal. It can be a simple list of three things we’re grateful for or a longer entry exploring what those items mean to us. Writing in a gratitude journal for ten minutes a day has been shown to reduce blood pressure by 10%. If getting started on a journal feels daunting, an easy place to start is with the things money can’t buy. By focusing on the priceless things in our lives, we begin to appreciate the breadth and depth of true wealth in our life. To maximize the benefits of gratitude, come up with the list first thing in the morning, jump-starting our day into a gratitude focused mentality.
But it doesn’t have to be a journal, especially if we want to involve our spouse, our kids, or our teams in the process. In this case, we can create a gratitude jar. Everyone writes down their gratitude for the day and pops it in the jar. Once a week, sit down as a family and read a random selection out loud. This can be especially helpful in stressful times, or when someone in the home is feeling down. Place the jar where it’s easily seen. When we have a physical representation of gratitude simply looking at the jar can induce feelings of appreciation, helping induce a culture of positivity throughout the entire space.
2. Verbalize Appreciation
If we sat down and thought about all the people in our lives that we appreciate, we’d probably have quite a full list. If we took that same list and highlighted the people we actually told we appreciated, it would likely be much shorter. Feeling gratitude and not expressing is like wrapping a present but never giving it to the person we bought it for.
Make it a conscious practice to verbally appreciate people. Call them. Write them a note or an email. Tell co-workers immediately how much we appreciate their help or how much we appreciated our kids doing their chores without being prompted. But don’t stop there. Make gratitude a daily verbal exercise. Share gratitude at family dinners or during team meetings.
3. Do Visual Affirmations
It’s one thing to verbally appreciate others in our lives, but it’s vital we don’t forget to appreciate ourselves. And to make this impactful, we should look at ourselves while doing it. We can start with one thing a day. Something we did, a task we accomplished, a feature we like about ourselves — the detail doesn’t matter as long as it’s something we appreciate about ourselves. Look in the mirror and appreciate how awesome we are, one characteristic at a time.
Standing in front of a mirror and talking to ourselves may feel awkward at first, but this practice has been shown to be a powerful tool in rewiring our brain. A study published in the journal of Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience found that self-affirmations activate several reward centers in our brain. Reward centers are powerful motivators, pushing us to engage in the behaviors and activities that activate them. Doing self-affirmations daily means we start each day with these reward chemicals, prompting us to continue in this mindset more and more.
4. Practice Mindfulness
One of the keys to being grateful is being in the present. When we’re worried or stressed we’re often focused on the future. And if we’re mired in regret or are beating ourselves up for a mistake, we’re stuck in the past. In order to be able to express and feel gratitude, we have to be fully engaged in the present.
Often, we have to slow down in order to speed up and that’s exactly what practicing mindfulness does. It helps us take a deep breath and ground ourselves in what’s happening right now. Take a break from devices and spend more time in nature. Use the disconnected time to reflect on what we have in our lives and reflect on the things we appreciate. This quiet exercise will reduce stress and increase our overall peace of mind while building our reservoir of gratitude. And the more grateful we become, the more present we become.
5. Reduce Judgement
Our own inner critic is what largely keeps us away from feeling gratitude. When we constantly attach good or bad labels on the things in our lives or the experiences we have, we have a difficult time finding the things to be grateful for.
There’s an old parable that demonstrates this best.
Long ago there was a farmer. One day his horse ran away and his neighbor said, “What a shame.” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back and brought a group of wild horses with it. The neighbor said, “How wonderful!” And the farmer simply said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse stepped on the farmer’s son's arm, breaking it. The neighbor said, “How terrible.” But the farmer only said,” Maybe.” The next day officials came to the village drafting people for the war. They exempted the farmer’s son because of his arm to which his neighbor exclaimed, “What luck!” And the farmer replied, “Maybe.”
The point is we can never know what one event will bring. We determine what things mean and can find things to be grateful for, even in difficult experiences or hard times.
Nothing is positive and nothing is negative. It’s our own thinking that makes them so. Gratitude is a state of the mind, and it’s also a state of the heart. The more we practice gratitude, the more aware we are of it, the more we enjoy the benefits of lower stress, a happier state of mind, and a healthier body.
Remember, what we appreciate, appreciates. It’s not happy people who are thankful, it’s thankful people who are happy.